what exile feels like

Sermon 10-8-17

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

God’s people are really having a tough time of it. They’ve been promised a land of their own, but that land keeps getting annexed, conquered, claimed through eminent domain, tossed from one Empire to another.

Last week, remember, Isaiah was warning King Ahaz about the dangers of allying his kingdom with the Assyrian Empire. Ahaz, of course, didn’t listen, and God’s people came under the thumb of Assyria. Not so many years later, Assyria was defeated by the Babylonian empire, and the Jews were handed off as part of the spoils. The Babylonians definitely didn’t honor any of the Assyrian agreements about the Jews being able to remain on their land and be semi-autonomous in their own government. No, the Babylonians didn’t want anything to do with God’s people. They kicked them out.

Jeremiah had been a prophet in Israel for years, and he’d been warning the leaders of God’s people that this was coming. Jeremiah wasn’t very popular – who wants to hear that they’ll be defeated by yet *another* world power or that they’ll be summarily removed from their homeland? Jeremiah got ridiculed, ostracized, imprisoned and ignored. No one wanted to hear what he had to say.

But you know how it goes with God’s prophets: even if no one listens to them, their prophecies tend to ring true eventually. When the Babylonians finally took over, they deported all the Israelites from Jerusalem and into other parts of the empire. The deportations happened in three waves: 597 BC, 587 and 582. Jeremiah, in today’s reading, is writing to the first exiles – the elders, priests, prophets and people. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem, and sending word to his neighbors who are not.

//

I don’t know about you, but when I try to put myself in the position of those exiled Israelites, the kind of letter I’d want from home wouldn’t necessarily be the kind of letter that Jeremiah sends.

And, to be honest, it is difficult for me to put myself in the position of the exiled Israelites. I have only ever left my home as a result of my own, autonomous decision. Some of those decisions were easier than others, but I have never been forced from my home. I understand, intellectually, that this is a privileged sort of existence in this day and age.

But I know – and so you do – sisters and brothers who HAVE been forced from their homes. If we stop for just a minute and think about folks we know who might have vivid experiences of physical, geographic exile, the list could grow very, very long:

  • I think of the S. Family – the refugee family from Syria (one of many new neighbors) that I had the joy of getting to know earlier this year, forced from their home and their country because of civil war;
  • I think of Gloria M., the Nigerian girl from Chibok who was abducted from her classroom by Boko Haram fighters in 2014, who this congregation spent years praying for, and whose return we had the privilege of celebrating this spring.
  • I think of Wildin Acosta, who I heard speak at a DCIA event a few months ago, a young man who graduated from Riverside High School here in Durham after spending nearly a year in a Georgia immigration detention center, who has been fighting deportation to Honduras, a place he fled because he was a target of the M-13 gangs there. This week, his case has been continued until December.
  • I think of Eliseo Jimenez, whose family entered sanctuary this week – voluntarily imprisoned themselves inside the Umstead Park UCC church in Raleigh in order to avoid deportation while their immigration status makes its way through the courts, a family that has been chased from one home already and is desperate not to be deported from this one.
  • I think of sisters and brothers in Houston and Florida and Puerto Rico, forced from their homes after this season’s hurricanes destroyed houses and towns.

Who else do you know who has experienced the physical, geographic reality of exile?

Even if we ourselves have never been forced from our homes, we know people who have been. We can imagine what it might feel like. We know people. We love people. We empathize with and live among people. I also think that even if we have never been physically removed from our homes, we might still know what exile feels like. I was part of a women’s retreat several years ago where we considered this question: when have we felt exiled?

The responses to that question were really powerful. There were women in the group who had been forced, physically, from their homes. One woman shared that she had been living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and even now, over a decade later, she could still feel the depth of that loss and terror and trauma.

But others in the group connected those emotions to experiences of exile that were not quite so physical or geographical: One woman talked about what it felt like to have both of her parents pass away in the same year. Another shared about the way her life’s journey had led to her to a place that was very different politically and theologically than her family of origin, and how she felt so far away from the people that raised her. And another woman shared about how, when she told her church that she had had an abortion when she was young, they shamed her, condemned her, and excluded her from the community.

We are gifted with imagination, compassion and empathy, so even if we have never been forcibly removed from our own homes, we can begin to develop a compassionate imagination for what that kind of loss might feel like. We might not have known exile, but we have felt the tips of the tentacles of emotion that being cast out, ostracized, and exiled might call up. We can begin to imagine what sort of care and compassion we would long for. We can begin.

When I try to do this, to summon up all my own small experiences of “exile” and attempt to put myself in the place of the Israelites who have been deported from the only home they’ve ever known, it seems pretty clear what kind of compassion and sympathy I would want from the people around me.

I would want to scream and rage and cry and then wrap myself up in a cozy blanket, close my eyes and fall asleep until the nightmare was over. I would want people to agree with me that this would be the best option, and bring me another pillow to keep my neck from seizing up while I slept.

But that’s me. Maybe you are calibrated differently, and your response would be something else. Maybe you would want to scream and rage and cry and then fight with all your gathered resources to change the situation. Maybe you would mount an army and instigate a revolt against the people who forced you from your home. Maybe you would be driven to swift and immediate retaliatory action.

But neither of these responses are included in Jeremiah’s letter of “comfort” and instruction to his fellow Israelites exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah does not write a letter telling the exiled Israelites to huddle up and wait it out, and he does not write a letter endorsing forcible resistance to the enemy powers.

What Jeremiah writes is, I imagine, a rather unwelcome note to those exiled Israelites.

“Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease.”

In other words, Jeremiah says: unpack your bags. Settle in. Get used to this place, to this feeling. Your don’t have to despair, and you don’t have to revolt. Your response can be something else: your response can be to LIVE, to flourish, to build and plant and marry and celebrate. You can live HERE, too.

And I don’t know about you, but that advice would be pretty hard for me to swallow. Trauma is exhausting. It takes time to process, to feel, to move through. Getting out of bed, planting a garden and building a new house would NOT be on my initial to-do list. Jeremiah’s letter with instructions for the exiles feels like…stage 2. Maybe a very distant stage 2.

And some of the exiles never made it there. They didn’t all heed Jeremiah’s advice. Some of them refused. Some of them fled – to Egypt, of all places, where their ancestors had escaped slavery so many years ago – and they took Jeremiah with them.

But others stayed. They built houses, planted gardens, celebrated wedding feasts and the births of new babies. I imagine that those practices of tilling soil and hewing boards and baking cakes and soothing infants were what enabled the Israelites to heed Jeremiah’s continued instructions:

Because Jeremiah doesn’t stop at this insistence on picking back up and living life as if they were at home. Jeremiah also insists that part of life as God’s people – even as God’s people in exile – is also to “seek the welfare of the city where you are; pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare will you find your welfare.”

The Israelites, driven from their homes and their families and what they understand as the land that God has always promised them are instructed not only to keep living and breathing and celebrating life, but also to get engaged with their community. Jeremiah instructs them to seek the welfare of the city – THIS city, the one they probably hate, the one they did not choose, the one they have been forced into. Jeremiah instructs them to pray to God – the God of Israel, the God they thought they could only know in Jerusalem where the temple was and the priests were making sacrifices and all their ancestral history resided – to pray to God for THIS hateful, unfamiliar place.

If planting a garden is Step 2 in Jeremiah’s trauma healing process, helpful after the initial grief and processing, THIS – to embrace the current circumstances in such a way that the exiled Israelites would even become good Babylonian citizens, productive members of Babylonian society, good neighbors and co-workers and praying even for these people that conquered them and removed them from their land and cast them out of the one place that they had been certain they could worship God in the way that God wanted…that feels like Step Number 539. But Jeremiah says that this is Step #3.

Here, in Jeremiah’s Trauma Healing Program, there are 3 steps:

  1. Move.
  2. Plant/Build/Celebrate/Live.
  3. Pray for THIS place.

God’s promise has not been forfeited. Jeremiah goes on, in the next few verses, to assure the Israelites that God is still planning to gather them all back together. These are familiar verses for us, ones we trot out whenever we are uncertain about the direction of our own lives, ones that we have probably unwittingly made trite with the lack of context. You know these verses:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Yes, God says, I have plans. They are revolutionary plans, plans for your good, plans for a future that is full of hope. You are exiled and dispersed now, but I will bring all of you back home. That will happen. Trust that it will.

But.

It probably won’t happen in your lifetime. “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place,” God says. This exile is going to last a long time. The hope of my promise of return is not an immediate thing – this is a long, slow-burn of a promise. Your children’s children may be the ones who get to return home. It probably won’t be you.

That’s some cold “comfort” for exiles, for people who’ve been uprooted from all they’ve known and all they trusted.

But then, when I think about those sisters and brothers we’ve named who are experiencing exile, who are living this ancient reality in real time, I realize that Jeremiah’s wisdom is…not worthless.

The S. Family, the Syrian refugees I got to know last spring, are learning English: painstakingly, slowly, with great difficulty. It is necessary, yes, to survive here in America, but the language is also a way for them to build their home here. Z, the father of the family, probably won’t ever be fluent. The alphabet is too foreign, his life has been filled with too much trauma. He is, rightly, more worried about getting a job than mastering English grammar. He won’t ever be fully integrated into this new country of his. But A, his son, translated every word I said. He’d been in the US for three months.

I don’t know much about Gloria M’s family in particular, but I do know that her church family in Nigeria has lost 70% of its buildings and over 700,000 of our sisters and brothers have been displaced by the violence of Boko Haram. And I know that those same exiled people have worked tirelessly to build new homes, new churches, to plant gardens and celebrate the birth of new babies – even those babies fathered by Boko Haram fighters. This has not been easy. It is not intuitive. But Jeremiah’s word to the exiles – to find a way to LIVE in this foreign place – is coming alive.

You’ve witnessed the resiliency and doggedness of friends and family who’ve been cast out decided to LIVE, even in exile. You know what it looks like.

What does it look like for us? Where, in your own life, are you experiencing the beginnings of that experience of exile? What relationship or situation or place in your own life feels a little like exile? And then, what is it that you can do in that situation, that relationship, to build, to plant, to celebrate, to live as if this strange, unknown, unpleasant and unfamiliar place were actually home?

And if you aren’t feeling or being exiled right now, what is it that you can do to enable someone else to do this hard work for themselves? How can you be a supportive neighbor? Can you offer a garden plot, some building supplies, the raw materials a sister or brother needs to make some strange new place into a home? Can you attend the party, help them celebrate or pray alongside them for this place – THIS place, where our welfare is bound up together?

God is gathering us, all of us, back together. May we open our eyes and our hearts to witness to the truth of it. Amen.

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tucked up in our morally superior perches of plenty

Sermon 9-10-17, Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24

When we last left the people of God, Elijah had been called as a prophet to declare God’s disappointment with King Ahab. The Kingdom of Israel had split in two, and both kingdoms were having trouble abiding by God’s commands for living life with integrity. The Kings were amassing wealth and building temples to other gods, failing to participate in the ancient covenant that their ancestors had made with the Lord. Elijah warned King Ahab and the people that God was not pleased and that God had plans to bring a drought upon the whole land. You know the story – the drought came, Elijah fled, after three years, Elijah returned to prove God’s power, the drought ended and the people once again professed their fidelity and faith in the Lord.

But, as you might imagine, that fidelity and faith doesn’t last forever.

This week, we’re soaring through the centuries to catch up with another prophet: Amos. Amos is one of what are called the “twelve minor prophets.” His book is fairly short, sweet, and to the point. His prophecies are not long like Isaiah’s or uber-historically specific like Jeremiah’s. Amos was the first prophetic book to be written, and it was meant to be read over and over. His prophecies came at a particular time in the history of the people of Israel, but they are so relevant even today that it is actually sort of…terrifying.

Amos starts out by reeling the Israelites in. He names all of Israel’s neighbors and pronounces God’s judgement upon them all, one at a time: Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab: one after another, Amos lists the injustices of these nations, and one after another, reports that God is planning to bring down fire on each of them. You can imagine the way those first hearers of this book were feeling:

“Yes, yes, that’s right: those guys are AWFUL. Haven’t we been saying it all along what animals those Ammonites are? Didn’t my grandfather warn me years ago about the infidels of Gaza? Thank goodness this prophet is finally speaking so clearly and honestly. So well put! Such a sad state of affairs. Thank GOD that those people will finally be done away with! Just getting what they deserve, aren’t they? Finally encountering their comeuppance. You know what they say about karma…”

But Amos is wily. After two chapters full of denouncing all the other kingdoms for their transgressions – which are, we should probably point out, injustices of the dehumanizing kind: Gaza sent entire communities into exile, Edom pursued his brother with the sword and couldn’t stop being angry, Moab refused to give even their enemies a proper burial –

After this laundry list of judgement to come upon every other people in the land, Amos, who has reeled his hearers in on the line of their deep self-righteousness, makes a sudden turn.

“And Judah,” he says, and you can almost hear the audible gasp among the crowd:

“WHAT? I thought we were here to hear about how God was going to smite all our awful enemies! Moab and Damascus and Gaza are AWFUL. God is right to bring down fire on them! Just listen to what they’ve done! This isn’t about…us…is it?”

And Judah, Amos says, has rejected the law of the Lord.

And Israel, Amos says, and you can hear the crowd start grumbling with impatience. A few of them are probably turning around and leaving in a huff.

And Israel, Amos says, has decided to sacrifice the poor on the altar of extravagance. They’ve broken my commandments, ignored my law, and decided to live only to please themselves.

//

Amos prophesied during the first half of the 8th century BCE. The kingdom of Israel had split in two, the kings were getting pretty rich, and even though Elijah and others had persistently been calling the people back to a life of fidelity and justice with God, the people were not full participants in this covenant. They kept getting seduced into systems of earthly power and wealth.

It seems, in Amos’ day, that the elite of the land – both Israel and Judah – were engaged in some serious economic exploitation. They “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way.” Apparently, they have both winter and summer houses, while the poor around them have no place to live. They are “hoarding violence and oppression for themselves.”

Amos has, it’s true, listed the failings of every one of Israel’s neighbors, and they are not pretty. But the downfall of the Israelites (which includes both Israel and Judah, remember) is not that they’re perpetrating human rights violations. The downfall of the people of God is that they have failed to live up to the covenant of faithfulness and justice. Israel hasn’t necessarily sent entire nations into exile or dishonored the dead of their enemies or done what the Ammonites are apparently being punished for and killed and dismembered pregnant women in order to gain more land for themselves…but they are, nonetheless, in deep, deep trouble with God.

It turns out, being selfish and unjust to the poor and needy is an even bigger violation than sending a whole people into exile – if, that is – you are a part of the people that God has chosen to be his living example of mercy and justice in the world.

God will deal harshly with all those other peoples, because God is a God of justice and in charge of the entire earth. But this infidelity of God’s own people to God’s own way of mercy and justice for all…well, this makes God particularly upset.

Later on, another of God’s prophets will pick up on this theme of self-righteousness. In Matthew’s gospel, when John the Baptist comes to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, to prepare the way for Christ himself, the Pharisees and Sadducees flocked to his preaching point and asked to be baptized. But when he saw them, John screamed at them: “You brood of vipers! Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘oh, that judgement isn’t for us…WE have ABRAHAM as OUR ancestor! EVERY tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Amos’ warnings of the wrath of God, about to descend upon the unjust and self-righteous elite, is not the last time that God will have to send a prophet to remind her people not to be so sure of themselves, so certain of their own goodness, so comfortable in their morally superior perches of plenty.

The rest of the book of Amos is a description of God’s pronouncement of punishment upon Israel.

“I gave you warning after warning,” God tells them.

I sent famine on the land, and drought, too

…and yet you did not return to me.

I sent blight and mildew, destroyed your gardens and your vineyards, had locusts devour your fig trees and your olive trees

…and yet you did not return to me.

I sent a pestilence on you like I did to the Egyptians, I killed your young men and carried away your horses

…and yet you did not return to me.

You’ve had so many opportunities to change your ways. I’ve tried and tried to convince you to return to me, to repent, to live lives of mercy and justice. But you did not repent. You refused to return. You were seduced by the power and wealth of the world.

This sounds a little like that nursery rhyme – Little Bunny Foo Foo. Do you know it?

Little bunny Foo Foo
Hopping through the forest
Scooping up the field mice
And boppin’ ’em on the head!

Down came the good fairy
And the good fairy said:
“Little bunny Foo Foo, I don’t wanna see you
Scooping up the field mice and boppin’ ’em on the head!
I’ll give give you three chances,
Then I’ll turn you into a goon!”

//

This is what God says to the Israelites. “Seek me and live. And, by the way, seeking me doesn’t stop at worship. I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Stop singing your noisy songs to me! No, seeking me looks like letting justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

rbt0244

The ‘separation wall’ on the West Bank, Palestine. From nomadruss on wordpress.

In fact, Amos prophesied in the early 8th century, BCE and by the second half of that century, the Israelites had in fact been defeated and destroyed by the Assyrians. Later on, the Babylonians would send the entire people into exile – the temple would be completely destroyed, and the people would be sent far away from home, monarchy, sacred spaces.

Amos is the first of the prophets, and given that there are 11 more “minor” prophets and four “major” prophets still to come, plus the resurgence of this message all the way through John the Baptist, it’s probably safe to assume that Amos’ warnings were not the final word in this conversation between God and God’s people.

The conversation continues today. God is always reminding us that the covenant we share includes not only worship and prayer but also and always the practices of mercy and justice. To live a life of faithfulness and fidelity to this God who calls us his own, we are invited to live our whole lives in the light of God’s new kingdom on earth.

Sometimes, we Christians get caught up in naming the sins of others. This feels good. Really good. I am happy to point out the ways that Russia is colluding with our government for their own gain, eager to name the inhumanity of Boko Haram in Nigeria, delighted to point out the hypocrisy of our president and other powerful men claiming the name of Jesus but failing to practice self-giving love.

It feels GOOD to call others out. When I name the sins of others – even rightly so, even sins that need to be named, hate that needs to be countered, actions that need to be stopped – I feel powerful, and superior, and…exempt. If THEY are the ones doing wrong, then surely WE are over here, in the column of RIGHT.

Amos smirks at this kind of projection. “Yes, those other people are doing horrendous things. Yes, these injustices are maddening to God, and God is angry about them and promises to right them. But what ought to be concerning you, dearly beloved children of this God of justice, are the ways that you yourselves have forsaken your creator and your covenant. Don’t you know that you, too, are trampling the heads of the poor in the dirt, that YOU are hoarding up violence and oppression for yourselves, that YOU are part of the problem?

This is hard to hear. It is harder still to heed.

Here’s this week’s challenge, straight from the ancient prophet Amos:

The next time you find yourself raging at the news, screaming about the injustice of the President rescinding DACA or the General Assembly drawing racist district lines or the local celebrity mega-church pastor exiling LGBTQ folks from grace or the KKK planning to put their horrific racism on display here in Durham, or your rich neighbor dropping a few cool millions on a summer home when you know people who can’t afford their rent…

The next time you find yourself ranting and raving about the how badly all those other people are behaving, read a little bit from the prophet Amos, or Isaiah, or John the Baptist. Offer a prayer of personal repentance for the ways that you, yourself, have participated in these evils. Ask God to clear out some of the self-righteousness in your own heart in order to make way for those mighty streams of justice that are on the way.

Because God is coming, roaring like an angry lion, to bring justice throughout the land. God is coming, bringing fire down on those who refuse to live in the light of divine justice – no matter which ones of us are standing in the way.

…about that Temple you’re building me

Sermon 8-27-17

1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13

During this series on the big epic stories of the Hebrew Bible, I’m tempted every week to do a television flashback: Previously, on The Bible:

You remember that we’ve walked with the Israelites through their origins as a nomadic desert people claimed by the Creator God, into the empire of Egypt and Pharoah’s courts, out of slavery and into their own, promised land.

You remember that, once they got there, they became unsatisfied with the way God was choosing to lead them – through judges: priests and prophets and warriors raised up from among them – and demanded that they be given a King, to rule them like all the other important nations they saw around them.

And you remember that God conceded, sent them Saul – the least possible qualified man – to be their first King. And Saul did indeed fight the Israelites’ battles for them – exactly what they’d asked for – but he also slowly descended into madness.

You remember that God’s spirit departed from the mad king and went to dwell with David, the unlikely young shepherd boy, that Saul went even more mad with envy and when he finally died in a battle with the Philistines, David took over the throne.

Well, this week, we arrive at the end of King David’s life.

David is on his deathbed, and his oldest son, Adonijah, jumps the gun. He assumes, since he is the oldest surviving son of the King, that he will automatically inherit the throne.

But we, followers of this story since the beginning, know what a huge mistake that assumption can be.

Adonijah goes about boasting “I will be king!” He stocked up on chariots and horses, rallied a few prophets and military leaders to his cause, and threw himself a celebration banquet of sacrificial feasts.

Except Adonijah hadn’t actually gotten his father’s blessing, yet. And David the King was still alive. So some of the other prophets and military leaders, who did not support Adonijah, went to one of David’s wives and told her what was going on. Bathsheba went into sickly King David’s chamber and convinced him to bestow his blessing on HER son, Solomon (sound familiar, eh? Just like Jacob and Esau and their wily mother Rebekah?)

The fading King David listens to Bathsheba and names his younger son, Solomon, to the throne. Adonijah is properly chastized, and goes to his younger brother with his tail between his legs and apologizes, begging Solomon not to kill him. Solomon agrees (although Adonijah continues to act like the braggart and entitled man he has shown himself to be, seduces one of his father’s concubines in an act that is tantamount to usurping the throne, and Solomon does, eventually, have him killed).

Still, even though there is this age-old sibling rivalry, the Israelites have managed to establish themselves – they’re in the land that God had always promised them; they have not only a King, but, with this transition from father to son, an actual generational monarchy. They’ve seemingly escaped slavery and managed to defeat enough of their enemies to enter into an era of relative peace. In fact, once Solomon takes the throne, the text says that “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sands of the sea; they ate and drank and were content.”

Moreover, the King himself is doing QUITE well. We learn that his rule “extended over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and the boundary of Egypt.” Every day, Solomon’s subjects provided him with pounds and pounds of corn and flour, 10 fattened oxen, 20 pasture-fed oxen, 100 sheep and goats plus deer and gazelles, roebucks and fatted geese. Every DAY. The King had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariotry and 12,000 horsemen.

Every one, from Dan to Beer-sheba – the whole nation – sat under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and they all dwelt in safety.

This is a far cry from the nomadic, desert existence that this people had come from.

And what does the nation of Israel decide to be most important in this moment of safety, prosperity and contentment?

They decide to build a temple for God to dwell with them in the same kind of safety that they are enjoying. Surely, they think, if all this food and wine and contentment is so enjoyable for us then it must be also what God would like. We tried to build him a temple back when David was king, but there were too many enemies that we had to fight and so we had to wait. Now is the time, for sure! Let’s build a gorgeous, elaborate, gilded home for our God.

Well, actually, it wasn’t so much the entire people that made this decision: it was mostly King Solomon.

And King Solomon had some interesting alliances. He’d really gotten into the whole King thing, and had decided to marry a daughter of Pharoah, to cement the international alliances with the empire of Egypt. Yes, that’s right – he’d married the daughter of the monarchy that had, not so long ago, held his entire people in slavery. Oh, and he had a great friend from Tyre – a buddy of his father’s – who was the best of the best when it came to Cedar trading. He decided to import all the cedar for this huge temple from another nation, since, as he tells King Hiram, “as you know, there is none among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians. I’ll send you my workers and we can get that Cedar cut and planed in no time.”

This international flavor was…weird. For a people who had been called out to be the chosen ones, set apart as God’s own, instructed again and again, over and over not to marry outside their own nation for fear of diluting their commitment to the God who chose them, commanded over and over to go to war against peoples whose cultic religion posed a threat to their worship of the one true God, entering so effortlessly into alliances with empire and other nations – explicitly, mind you, for the purposes of amassing power and wealth – is sort of unheard of.

Solomon is…up to something, here.

And if it’s not entirely clear yet, we learn soon that what Solomon is up to is not exactly for the glory of God and his neighbor’s good.

And God is not fooled. God does not instruct Solomon to build a temple, but God does say, when he speaks to Solomon: “In regard to this House you’re building – if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father, David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake my people.”

In other words: “Do what you want, Solomon, but my promise remains the same as it always has been: whether you worship me in the desert or the temple, all I ask is that you BEHAVE in the ways I’ve commanded you. Keep the commandments, and I’ll never forsake my people. This temple is fine, whatever, but you know as well as I do that I – the Lord and King of the Universe, the one who exists shrouded in mystery and glory – I don’t need a…HOUSE.”

But Solomon goes right on doing what he’s doing: and he makes it happen by enslaving his own people. “King Solomon,” we hear, “imposed forced labor on all Israel; the levy came to 30,000 men. He sent them to Lebanon (where the Cedars were being cut) in shifts of 10,000 a month…Solomon also had 70,000 porters and 80,000 quarriers.”

The Hebrew word that Solomon uses when he’s striking the deal for Cedars with King Hiram to share Israelite labor for the Cedar cutting is “mas” – this Hebrew word only occurs one other time, in Exodus 1:11, “so they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” In other words, what Solomon has done to his own people is exactly what Pharoah did to the entire Israelite nation in Egypt: enslaved them.

It’s impossible to hear this detail recounted so nonchalantly and not remember God’s warning to the people way back in Samuel’s time – telling them that if they got a King, all a King would do would be to amass wealth for himself and enslave them all.

As if that weren’t enough, we also learn that while Solomon, in his fervor to amass as much wealth and power as possible, spent seven entire years building this temple to house God, he then proceeded to build his own home – and that palace took THIRTEEN years to build.

It’s pretty clear that even though this temple will come to be unbelievably important to God’s people, even though for thousands of years, people will make pilgrimage here to be in God’s presence, even though the temple’s destruction in a few years will cause a massive identity crisis, even though good and proper and sacramental worship is an important part of faithfulness…

…this temple, like this whole ‘king’ thing, is not exactly God’s first choice for God’s people.

And, in fact, when the temple is finally completed – cedar planks, a shrine overlaid with gold, a holy of holies complete with two cherubim made of olive wood and overlaid with gold, doors carved with cherubim and palms – and Solomon calls all the people together for a great feast to dedicate it, to transfer the Ark of the Covenant – the seat of the divine presence, that’s been kept in a tent all these years (you remember the Ark because of the whole hemorrhoid debacle during Samuel’s time) – into this brand new, gold-gilded and cedar-planked building, God does show up.

God has promised, after all, not to abandon her people. God’s deep desire is to abide with the people, to refuse to forsake them. So, when her people build her a gorgeous, gilded house, she shows up.

Except God does not show up as a bodily figure, or a stationary liquid to fill the Ark of the Covenant. No, God shows up true-to-form: as a cloud. And the cloud fills the entire temple, makes it so full and hazy that the priests themselves have to leave. They can’t even make their sacrifices or do their ritual job because the presence of the God that this temple was built to house is so HUGE, so unwieldy, so fluid, so uncontrollable and uncontainable that when God showed up, she drove the priests out.

This could not have been unexpected: God showed up as a cloud back in the wilderness, leading the Israelites by day out from slavery. The Israelites knew that God was an unpredictable and uncontainable being – hasn’t this story been, from the beginning, about a mysterious, expectation-defying, tradition upending God who wants only for his people to trust him?

When God showed up in a cloud and drove the priests out of this newly constructed temple, Solomon starts praying:

“The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud: I have now built for You a stately House, a place where You may dwell forever.”

Um. What? The Lord is a cloud! And I have built a House!

That’s absurd. Clouds aren’t contained in houses. Clouds don’t belong inside. Clouds are part of the sky, part of the heavens, meant to be on the move. Clouds aren’t stationary.

But Solomon is PROUD of this cloud-house he has built, and the people – enslaved into the labor needed to construct it, subjects of a King who will spend twice as long on his own house as he does for the Lord’s – seem equally happy.

Solomon says a long-winded prayer to God, then turns around and offers a long-winded blessing to the people. He requires them to stick around for a long-winded Feast – it lasts seven days. And, we hear “on the eighth day, he let the people go. They bade the king good-bye and went to their homes, joyful and glad of heart over all the goodness that the Lord had shown to His servant David and his people Israel.”

To summarize: the Israelites, led out of slavery under an oppressive Pharoah and formed to be a nomadic people traveling with their God who promises to show up with them wherever they find themselves have now submitted themselves – joyfully – to a King who’s married into Pharoah’s family, convinced them to happily become slaves in order to build a permanent house for God.

I will admit that this reading of Solomon and the temple is not exactly orthodox – the traditional way to read the story is to laud honor and compliments on Solomon, this faithful man who obeyed God’s command to build a gold-gilded monument to the Lord. Solomon is, after all, the King who was wiser than any other.

But every detail here is present in the text. The writer of 1 Kings is not a fan of Solomon, and he is not a fan of temple worship.

Or, since the writer of 1 Kings was actually writing for the Israelites who had been exiled from their land and seen this temple destroyed, maybe he was telling the story in a way that made all that loss and grief palatable: yes, this is AWFUL, y’all – that we’ve been cast out of our land and the temple has been demolished, but don’t worry: none of that is what God really wants for us, anyway.

Either way, I find this story of Solomon and the temple pretty instructive for the ways and the places we choose to worship today.

I confess that I don’t feel comfortable in gold-gilded, relief-carved, column-filled houses of worship. The ancient cathedrals of Europe are imposing and unbelievably gorgeous, and I do marvel at the artistry and creativity and sheer strength of will and body that made them possible. Even Duke Chapel, here in town, a pale replica of all that, is impressive.

But those places are not where I feel at ease with God. I do not sense God present more in those spaces than anywhere else. And, honestly, I LIKE that we worship here in an unassuming, cinder block, multi-purpose, unadorned building. Simple spaces help me to recognize God present in the sisters and brothers surrounding me, help me pay attention to the ways God is at work always and everywhere, not confined to fancy buildings or elaborate rituals.

And that’s pretty Brethren. Brethren have a long history of refusing the trappings of church liturgy and power structures and buildings. The first Brethren gathered because those trappings had become barriers to what they called simple, unadorned faith. We have insisted, over and over, in many different ways, that we believers do not require special dispensation, special leaders, special institutions, special times, special education, special vocabulary, special food, special words or special buildings in order to be in deep and transformative relationship with the one who made us.

This kind of insistence on simplicity does have the capacity to rob us of some of the richness of faith. There are advantages and blessings in ritual, in liturgy, in beauty, in systems of accountability, in following a church calendar instead of a seasonal one, even in worshipping in spaces filled with symbols and reminders of God’s glory. I love and appreciate so much of the church’s tradition that comes to us in these vessels.

And yet, I think the wisdom of our anabaptist ancestors is in line with the wisdom we learn from Solomon: God’s promise is and has always been that if we obey God’s voice, then we will be God’s people. God has never asked us to construct fancy temples, and whether or not we worship with the proper songs or in the proper key or with the proper words or in the proper order or gathered among the proper cedars and gold-gilded cherubim simply does. Not. Matter.

In fact, spending all our time and energy on “proper” worship will probably, in the end, effectively distract us from actually listening to and obeying God’s voice in that mobile cloud.

If we’re too worried about how well we are doing here in this sanctuary, whether or not we’ve gotten enough cedar planks or olive wood cherubim, we’ll miss out on God’s call to be out in the world, loving God and loving our neighbors. God shows up in a cloud, kicks the priests out of the temple, and continues to call the Israelites into a journey of discipleship. God doesn’t want to sit around in a house and hear about how great she is (though if we decide to build a house, God will show up because God has promised to abide with us, to be our God, to never forsake us) – God is on the move, and asks us, over and over, to join her.

from the inside out

Every few weeks, the text for the week calls up some long-ago, filed-away kids’ song that I sang in Sunday school or Vacation Bible School or at Camp Bethel. This week, I’ve had this gem from the Gaithers stuck in my head – I’ve woken up singing it, hummed it while I washed dishes, went to bed with the lyrics running through my dreams:

 

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This morning, our scripture is the story of God anointing David to be King over Israel. You know that story: Samuel, the priest, hears from God that he is to anoint a new king, and he hears from God that the new king will come from the house of Jesse. So he invites Jesse and all his family over for dinner before the big sacrifice, and when they arrive, Samuel is certain that Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, is the one that God has chosen – he’s attractive, strong and (as we remember from last week’s story about King Saul) he has the most important leadership quality: he’s tall.

But God says, “Nope. Not the one. ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”

And that is the money verse right there, the one you probably remember from Sunday school like I do – the reminder that God’s ways are not our ways, the pinch of shame remembering how the Israelites exclaimed and fawned over the handsome, tall, totally unqualified King Saul that they had begged God for. Jesse parades seven sons before Samuel, and God disqualifies each one of them until Samuel finally asks, in desperation, whether or not there is any other son around. Jesse finally calls in David, the youngest, still a boy who is outside tending the sheep.

And when David walks in, dirty and smelly from tending the sheep, God says to Samuel: “Rise and anoint him. This is the one.”
When we hear this story, we think this scene – David getting anointed unexpectedly – is the entire narrative. At least in my memory of the story of King David, I remembered that Samuel anointed him, he proved his worth by fighting Goliath, and took over ruling Israel immediately, with God’s blessing and the people’s good will.

But actually, that’s not how the story goes. There’s a little problem: Israel still has the old king. Saul the Tall is still on the throne.

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I’ve really enjoyed imbibing and whittling down these epic narratives from the Hebrew Bible this summer, as we’ve navigated our way through the family legends and stories of a people thrust into conflict with Empire and figuring out how to live as God’s people.

And this is the first week that I have to confess that I cannot make heads or tails of the narrative.

1 Samuel tells the story of Saul’s kingship – the story of Samuel being dedicated to God and the temple before his birth, growing up under the mentorship of Eli, taking charge of the worship of the entire people and following God’s advice to anoint the people a King when they demand that they have one in order to be like all the other people, in order to have someone who can “fight their battles for them.”

All of that makes pretty decent narrative sense. What comes next – the chaos of the reign of Saul – does not.

Saul does some good stuff – wins some battles, kills a ton of enemies – but he does some bad stuff, too. The bad stuff is not entirely clear. It seems like the final straw for God was when Saul refused to kill ALL the Amalekites, keeping the best livestock and their leader for himself and his men. Scholars are still unsure why THIS is the offense that leads God to declare Saul no longer fit for kingship – a failure to show no mercy? but either way, God decides that Saul is no longer his anointed one.

So, God tells Samuel to go anoint a new king.

Here’s what happens when Samuel anoints David as King, even though Saul is still on the throne:

“From that day on, the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David…”

And, one verse later, “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.”

So, maybe the following mishmash of events is due, in part, to this evil spirit that has taken over Saul. Certainly Saul’s behavior makes sense for someone possessed.

Even though God has clearly shifted his allegiances from Saul to David, even though Samuel has anointed a new King, Saul still sits on the throne. David has the Spirit of the Lord, but he doesn’t have any military might or power from the people. He’s still just a young kid tending his dad’s flocks. Everybody is still looking to Saul for direction, that King that they demanded of the Lord, the one Samuel warned them would be awful for their well-being and their children’s well-being. But the Israelites are stubborn, and they’ve gotten what they’ve asked for, and now they are fawning over this new King, following his royal dictates in the news, watching his every move on the Iron Age equivalent of Twitter. I bet that even the Israelites who were opposed to the whole King business in the first place (ahem, Samuel…) are just as caught up in Saul’s antics as the rest of them.

Everybody’s watching King Saul. But God’s spirit has GONE OUT OF HIM. God’s not working his promise through the throne anymore.

God’s got his man down with the sheep.

But soon enough, David finds himself in the halls of power. As Saul’s health declines, he starts having hallucinations. He can’t sleep. He is tortured by the evil spirit that God has sent upon him, and his advisers think he needs a personal musician to help tame the demons. David, it turns out, is pretty great with a lyre. They summon him, and he enters into service of the King. Well, into the service of the guy who all the humans assume is still the King.

David would play his lyre whenever Saul got agitated by the evil spirit, and Saul took a special liking to him.

The Philistines (remember them?) were still hanging around, threatening the Israelites. One of their huge, popular warriors, named Goliath, challenged the Israelites to something like a gladiator challenge. All the Israelites grumble and argue about who they’ll send to go fight this gigantic man, but David – skinny little kid who spends his days playing the lyre and tending his father’s sheep – volunteers as tribute.

And you know this story: David pings Goliath in the forehead with a rock from his slingshot, Goliath falls like a mighty oak, face first into the dirt, and David finishes him off.

The people are totally impressed, and so is Saul. Saul starts sending David out as a warrior, and wherever Saul sent him, he managed victory over the Israelites’ enemies.

The people start fan-girl-ing David, chanting in the streets: “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his TENS of Thousands!”

And that’s when Saul gets jealous. David has more and more success, and Saul begins to be afraid of him.

And this is where the story gets…wonky. For the rest of the book – 12 more chapters – Saul chases David all over creation, trying to kill him then remembering that he once loved him like a son; commanding his generals to assassinate him, then being chastised by his son Jonathan, who loved David deeply; stalking him from town to town, then repenting when David decides not to kill him when he has a chance.

This goes on, and on, and on, and on. Saul cannot bear David’s rise to power, and yet he also cannot seem to cut him off. Saul the Tall has gone legitimately mad. He can’t tell up from down, his supporters from his enemies, right from wrong, dead from alive.

In the midst of all this cat-and-mouse game, Samuel the priest and prophet dies. All of Israel mourns him – the last leader of integrity that they had known. In his frantic grasp at power and sanity, Saul makes a trip to a woman who is a Seer – something he himself has forbid for the kingdom of Israel – in order to call Samuel forth, back from the dead, to give him advice.

It works – the seer woman summons Samuel’s spirit, and Samuel shows up. Saul bows down to him and Ghost Samuel says, irritated, “‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’”

“I don’t know what to do!” Saul wails. “the Philistines are waging war against me, God’s spirit has gone away from me, my advisers keep quitting on me, no one listens to my Twitter rants anymore…I’m just so LOST!”

And Samuel replies: “Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors – to David…The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.”

And, unsurprisingly, soon thereafter, the Israelites enter into another battle with the Philistines. When the enemy surrounds Saul and wounds him, he cannot take it anymore. He falls on his own sword.

David has been steadily rising in influence as a tested and victorious warrior who also seems to treat his enemies with some measure of mercy. The people have come to love him, and when Saul dies, they eagerly seat him on the throne. David only become king years and years after Samuel has anointed him, years and years after Saul has lost his mind, years and years after that moment where God declares that he does not value power the way that we humans value power, but that the heart is the most important.

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It’s hard not to read the story of Saul – an unlikely King demanded by a dissatisfied people and reluctantly installed by a disapproving Deity who knows how badly it will end; an unprepared mind simply not up to the task of wielding such power and descending, predictably, into paranoia, narcissism and pain, dragging an entire people with him – and not make a parallel to America today.

Plenty of Christians cite that verse from Romans 13 when they talk about the relationship that faithful people should have with the government. You know the one: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

And I want to call that out as an evasion, a half-truth, a way of hiding behind one verse of scripture without acknowledging the whole of it in order to keep our hands “clean,” as it were, in order to let ourselves off the hook when the governing authorities turn out to be not just bad but actually actively destroying the lives of our sisters and brothers, actively dragging us into madness.

God established Saul’s authority, it’s true. The Israelites asked for a King and God gave them one. But God also REMOVED HER SPIRIT from Saul. When Saul went rogue, like everybody knew he would, God started working in and through David to guide the Israelites toward the promise. And God says, straight up, “I don’t work the way you work. I don’t see power the way you see power. Authority doesn’t come from being attractive or wealthy or in the right place at the right time – the authority that I establish comes from having a heart that is pure and humble and inclined toward me.”

So, here’s a challenge for all of us this week: where do you see GOD at work? Where do you see God’s spirit moving among her people? Instead of following the white house on Twitter, look around – in unexpected places, with unexpected people. Where is God’s Spirit hanging out, these days?

I saw it on Main Street on Friday, when I walked the couple of blocks from my house to share water with protesters spending 7 hours marching against the KKK. I saw it in kids dancing, musicians drumming, neighbors chanting, dozens dropping off water and snacks and sunscreen and people declaring, together, that this city is not a place where evil spirits are welcome.

I’ve read a few of the media reports of what’s going on in Durham over the last few days, and I have to say that I’m not sure journalists are equipped to report on things “from the inside out,” like God does. But if we pay attention, we do have ways to look at the heart of a situation. We know what ‘heart’ looks like – often unassuming, sometimes stuck in the back with the sheep, sometimes from a backwater sort of place like Nazareth, sometimes hanging out with the people no one else wants to pay attention to, sometimes teaching and preaching and healing in opposition of the religious and political leaders, sometimes crucified for all that, sometimes resurrected in the power of God’s own Spirit.

Where have you seen HEART at work recently?

but you guys…he’s TALL!

It’s hard to keep track of the news, these days. This week felt particularly hard. I couldn’t pry myself away from the internet yesterday – watching hate show itself so baldly in Charlottesville, wondering about friends and colleagues who were there, waiting for the President to say something, wondering how my fellow clergy were going to re-write their sermons to take this eruption of hatred into account. Maybe you weren’t following things in Charlottesville so closely yesterday, but I feel pretty sure that one of the terrifying headlines of late has gotten to you, held you in its grasp, made it hard for you to focus on much of anything else. What do we do when the world feels immeasurably dangerous?

This week’s text from 1 Samuel felt like a balm to me as I was reading and studying it. Maybe it will feel the same way to you. Or maybe it will fuel your discontent. Or maybe it will feel completely unrelated. Nonetheless, our story of Samuel continues this morning. Listen, won’t you, for contemporary resonances.

When we last left Samuel, he had lost his lifelong mentor, and been suddenly thrust into leadership of the temple. The Philistines had stolen the Ark of the Covenant, and when they finally brought it back, Samuel was the one who assumed Priest-in-Charge duties. He restored the Israelites to their proper form of worship, and, the text tells us, he “judged Israel as long as he lived.” He traveled all over – from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah and back to Ramah, where his home was.

Samuel had sons, and when he grew too old to carry the whole burden of priest and judge duties, he appointed his sons to be the new judges. But, just like old Eli’s sons before them, Samuel’s sons were not great leaders. They were “bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice.” The Israelites knew what rascals Samuel’s sons were, and they begged him to appoint a king, instead.

Remember, right, that the Israelites – the people descended from all those family legends we’ve been studying, the ones who were descended from this small family out in the desert, the ones who moved into Egypt and encountered empire only to become slaves to the Pharaoh there, the ones who’ve spent decades, now, being led by various priests and warriors and judges – the Israelites have never had a king.

God, who called these people his own and continues to care for them, to lead them out of slavery and into promised land, who keeps showing up just when all hope was lost and bringing forth a new heir or a new leader or a new way of worship…God never felt it necessary to appoint a king over Israel. In fact, when they did make it into Egypt and out of the desert, the king there was less than beneficial: they ended up enslaved. It took an act of God to lead them out.

Still, the Israelites are dissatisfied with the way things are going. Samuel was a pretty good leader, like Eli was before him, but now his sons have come to power and they are not leaders of integrity. Moreover, every other people that they know of has a king.

The elders gather around Samuel and say to him: “You have grown old, and your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore, appoint a king for us, to govern us like all the other nations.”

It’s accurate that most of the other civilizations in the Ancient Near East had kings. These leaders controlled resources, mustered armies, and meted out justice. They were seen as shepherds of the people and often superhuman – if not gods themselves, then the very next best thing. And, in most of the writings that we have about the kings of the ANE, kingship was believed to be initiated by the gods and descended onto humankind. In other words, in those days, kings were put into power by divine beings, and seen as the gods’ right-hand men.

It’s pretty fascinating that kingship for the Israelites comes about in exactly the opposite way. God does not choose and install a king for his people. Instead, the people, fed up with the kind of leadership that they have, insist that Samuel anoint a king for them. This king will not be divinely chosen: this king is clearly put in place because the people are fed up.

And the people are not shy about why they want a king: they want to be like everyone else. They saw that other nations had kings instead of judges, they’re afraid for their own safety and security, and they demand a king for themselves.

Samuel is not happy. He’s been deeply formed in the way of priests and judges, and he also knows that even when the priests and judges don’t act with integrity, God has a way of bringing about better leadership. Didn’t he, himself, end up as judge when Eli’s sons, who stood to inherit the priesthood, were struck dead during battle? And hadn’t God himself whispered to Samuel that he would take care of this during that dream way back when he was a young boy?

Samuel knows what the people do not: God is in charge, and God will see to it that his people are cared for and well led. Samuel complains to God: “can you believe this, Lord? The people know who you are, they know your promises, they’ve even seen you do mighty works and save them from bad leaders and from our enemies. Don’t they remember that time you inflicted hemorrhoids on the Philistines when they tried to steal the Ark of the Covenant? Don’t they trust YOU to be their king?”

But God, who knows that arguing logic with scared kids is of no use, says to Samuel: “Heed the demand of the people in everything they say to you. For it is not you that they have rejected; it is ME they have rejected as their king. Like everything else they have done ever since I brought them out of Egypt to this day – forsaking me and worshipping other gods – so they are doing to you. Heed their demand; but warn them solemnly, and tell them about the practices of any king who will rule over them.”

And so, Samuel takes a deep, deep breath, and goes back out to the gathered people and does what God has told him to do. He warns them about all the ways of Kings:

This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

“So, you guys,” Samuel says, “is this really what you want? I mean, are you SURE? I really, really, really don’t think you’re going to like it.”

And the people said:

“We must have a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations. Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles.”

Samuel, with another deep sigh, leaves the assembly and reports back to the Lord. “God,” he says, “they’re really serious. This is happening. Are you SURE you want me to give them what they want?”

And God says, “Heed their demands and appoint a king for them.”

But there is a tiny problem: who, exactly, should Samuel appoint to be King over this whole people? It really can’t be an internal hire – just think of all the politics and hidden alliances that would have sprung up. And it’s not like the Israelites had a lot of contact with people outside their own community. How would they even FIND a King?

Well, God solves this problem pretty quickly, as does the text. The very next thing we hear is that “there was a man of Benjamin (you remember Joseph’s little brother?) whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite (oh, right, a member of one of the twelve tribes, still distantly related to Samuel’s people), a man of substance. This man had a son whose name was Saul, (note: it wasn’t SAUL who was a man of substance…he was the son of one); no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people.”

So, here’s what we know about Saul, the guy who is going to be anointed the very first King of the Israelites, the one the people have clamored for, the one God has sent to fulfill their desire to have someone to rule over them and fight their battles for them:

His dad is a “man of substance”;

he is more handsome than any of the Israelites;

and…

he’s really tall.

I mean, sure, when you’re looking for a King, those are the most important qualities, right? Comes from a good family, looks attractive, really tall.

Totally qualified to lead an entire people, wage war, distribute resources, mitigate disputes and generally be considered a divine being in total control of an entire people. I mean, HE’S TALL, you guys!

Never mind that Samuel himself, the last leader of this ornery people, was dedicated to God before he was even conceived, spent his entire life being formed in the ways of the temple and mentored by the priest and leader, and only assumed leadership after a lifetime of learning how to do all the important things, in the wake of his mentor’s death and his people’s defeat in battle. Who cares about all that preparedness? Who needs formation? This man…THIS MAN…is HANDSOME.

A few of Saul’s father’s donkeys ran off, and his dad sent Saul out after it. “Take some servants,” he said, “and go find those asses.” This is verbatim, direct translation, from the text, and I cannot help but read a bit more into it than Saul going to look for livestock. Haven’t the Israelites, who he’ll eventually stumble into, been acting like donkeys?

Saul and his servants look and look, but they can’t find the lost donkeys. They traveled over every hillside around Jerusalem, day after day, and finally, Saul said “this is taking too long. Let’s go home – otherwise Dad will think he’s lost his son in addition to his donkeys.” But his servant recognized the hillside nearest them as close to the place where Samuel, the prophet, lived. “There is a man of God in that town,” he told Saul, “everything he says comes true. Let’s go see him; maybe he can tell us where to find the donkeys.”

Fine. Saul agrees, but insists that if they go to visit this prophet man, they ought to take a gift. “What do we have?” The servant said “I happen to have a quarter shekel of silver. I can give that to the man of God, and maybe he will tell us about our errand.” So they set off.

As they climbed the hillside, they saw some girls walking out to the well to draw water, and asked if the prophet was in the town. “Yes,” the girls replied, “But he’s about to leave – you should hurry if you want to catch him.” Saul and his servants hurry into town, and as they entered the gates, Samuel passed them on his way up to the temple.

Samuel, we know, never stopped talking with God. And just the night before, God had told him that he would be sending a man from the territory of Benjamin, and that Saul should go ahead and anoint this (tall) (handsome) man as ruler of Israel. And when Samuel looked up and saw Saul striding into town, God said to him “That’s him!”

So, in obedience to the Lord, Samuel greeted Saul and invited him over to dinner. Saul and his group went home with Samuel and ate a delicious dinner. But when Saul asked about the lost donkeys, he got a very unexpected reply: “Oh, yes,” Samuel said. “The donkeys have been found. Don’t worry about them. But there’s something else: the Lord has told me that you are to be anointed as the king of the Israelites. For whom is all of Israel yearning, if not for you and all your ancestral house?”

Saul is, understandably, surprised. But he puts up no fight and apparently offers no excuse or resistance. Samuel and Saul went up to the roof, and Samuel took a flask of oil out and poured oil on Saul’s head, kissed him, and said “The Lord herewith anoints you ruler over His own people.” Then Samuel gives Saul a few instructions about returning home, what to tell his family, what signs he’ll see on the way to know that God is really with him, and sends him off.

And, as Saul turns around to leave, the text says that “God gave him another heart.”

And that’s that. The Israelites have a king. Done and done.

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See, isn’t that a comforting story? 🙂

I love the way God acts toward her people: like an amused and slightly annoyed parent. Clearly, God did not want Israel to have a King. The people had been formed to be God’s people, a nation made different than all the rest, a community built without need for a monarch, trained to put their trust in the one, divine King. It had worked for them up to this point, they’d managed to grow into huge numbers, just like God promised Abraham; they’d been led out of slavery and found the promised land, just like God promised Jacob; even just now, in the last few years, they’d lost their most precious Ark of the Covenant and then miraculously had it returned to them, ended up with crooked leadership and suddenly had them replaced with a strong man of faith. God was in the process of keeping her promises.

And still, those Israelites wanted nothing more than to be like everybody else, to make themselves feel safer by having a King, to do things their way.

And God does not condemn them, God does not chide them, God doesn’t even seem all that surprised or angry – even though it’s clear that this request is an outright rejection of God’s own protection.

No, God just sighs a deep, deep sigh and tells Samuel to give the kids what they want.

As if it won’t really make all that much difference in the end, as if God saw this coming all the way back in the Garden of Eden.

Clearly, there is a better way to go about being God’s people: don’t have a king. But when God’s people decide not to go that route, God does not abandon them to their fate. Oh, yes, there are consequences, and they are huge – we’re still wrestling with the consequences of this choice today. But the bad choice does not separate the Israelites from God.

No, instead, God sighs really deeply, brings them the tall, handsome, unqualified guy they insisted upon, and after Samuel anoints him, as he turns to walk away, God gives him a new heart.

God knows our fears. God knows our sin. God even anticipates our rejection. Our cowardice and self-righteousness does not surprise the God who made us. And it does not separate us from his presence, from his love, or from his plan.

Of course, there’s a better way to live. There’s the original intent, straight from the Creator: live without fear, without shame, without needing a King to do our dirty work for us. But even when we reject that better way, we are not cast out of possibility.

Here’s why that’s comforting to me, today: I don’t think God was surprised at all by yesterday’s eruption of hatred and bigotry in Charlottesville. I don’t think God was surprised, and I know that some of our sisters and brothers of color who have lived with that kind of hatred every day of their lives were not surprised.

If we are surprised, that’s part of the privilege of whiteness.

I don’t think God is surprised by the depths of our capacity to hate. I think God offers us, again and again, over and over, generation after generation the possibility of another way forward, the assurance that we do not need to be afraid of one another, the reality of a new heaven and a new earth, available to us here and now.

And when we choose to bypass God’s offer, choose to give in to the parts of us that tell us the world is a place to be feared and resources are scarce and we should huddle closer to the people who are like us and keep everybody else out and probably, while we’re at it, get ourselves a king or a militia or an assault rifle or a vocabulary full of hatefulness or a huge bigoted rally where we can wield tiki torches and spew vitriol and parade around like we are gods…

…or even when we see all that happening and refuse to speak up because we’re scared that we’ll make someone angry or start an argument or maybe even lose our jobs…

…or when we see all of it happening and refuse to acknowledge the ways we, ourselves, might be responsible for it by blaming Nazis or evangelicals or the president, pointing fingers instead of doing our own work, confessing our own sin, working in our own ways toward accepting God’s promise…

Whenever we choose to bypass God’s offer, we take ourselves that much farther from God’s intention for us, his beloved creation.

But our choices do not leave us abandoned. God does not throw her hands in the air and stomp off. God shakes her head, sighs deeply, allows us what we’ve demanded, and then sneaks in around the corner and does what she was always planning to do in another, maybe less ideal, way.

God is not surprised by our fear, our hatred, our violence. But I do think God celebrates, squeals with delight, smiles with the warmth of a thousand suns, whenever we choose to accept her offer of another way – the hard and painful way of justice, joy, and peace.

on hemorrhoids & justice

We’re working our way through the family legends of Genesis, Torah, and the prophets at my church this summer. I’m calling the sermon series “Family Values,” which is decidedly tongue in cheek, given that we’re talking about sisters competing in a birth-off, a dad consenting to sacrificing his favorite son, a woman who insists that her slave woman is “part of the family,” and dudes who sell their annoying little brother into slavery.

This week, we made it all the way to Samuel. You remember Samuel, right? His mom, Hannah, had a snotty sister wife who kept having baby after baby and then throwing it in Hannah’s barren face. Hannah had a total meltdown at one annual family visit to the temple and swore to God that if he gave her a son, she would give him right back and dedicate him to work in the temple.

God “remembered” Hannah (which is what the old dudes who wrote these legends down keep saying about women who find themselves somewhat unexpectedly and belatedly pregnant – as if God had totally forgotten them since they hadn’t done their single female task and borne any offspring yet…) and she had a son. She named him Samuel, which means “I asked the Lord for him.” I’m pretty sure that was Hannah’s way of getting back at the old scribes’ misogyny, reminding them that God hadn’t forgotten her and suddenly remembered, but that they’d been in cahoots the whole time.

Samuel grew up in the temple, dedicated to the priest named Eli and the work of God’s house. You probably remember the story of how God called Samuel in the night, but Samuel – new at this whole temple thing and living in an era when God didn’t really speak to humans this way with much frequency – kept thinking it was Eli. When the two of them finally figure out that God is trying to talk to Samuel, God tells him all kinds of horrible things about how Eli’s sons have been horrid scoundrels, stealing from the people and from the Lord, and how God just can’t let that go on much longer.

The prophecies come true. The Israelites get into a skirmish with the Philistines. When they lose the first battle, they decide that they need something to strengthen morale and raise their spirits. They decide to go drag the Ark of the Covenant – the dwelling place of the Lord that was usually kept in the holiest of holy places inside the temple – down to the battlefield.

Of course they’d need someone to accompany the Ark, so they enlist Eli’s scoundrel sons to guard it down on the battlefield. The plan does not go well. The Philistines capture the Ark and, in the process, kill both of Eli’s sons. When Eli hears the news, he falls out of his chair, hits his head on the ground and dies instantly.

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Philistines, Jean-Michel Basquiat

So, the temple is effectively inoperable: no priest, no Ark, no worship.

The Philistines, meanwhile, have difficulty storing the dwelling place of the Most High God. Everywhere they try to stash it – one city after another – tragedy befalls them. People get sick. Depending on how you translate a single Hebrew word, the plague that follows the Ark through the Philistine territory is either Bubonic plague, tumors, or…hemorrhoids.

Yep. The Lord of Hosts inflicts the Israelites’ enemies with hemorrhoids.

It turns out to be an effective defense. After moving the Ark around several times, the Philistines give up and decide that they’ll just have to return it to the Israelites and their temple. But they can’t just return it without an explanation or an apology. They decide that they need to return the Ark accompanied by some gifts. They call together a council to decide what the appropriate gift is for stealing another tribe’s sacred divine dwelling place, and they settle on five golden rats and five golden…hemorrhoids.

The Philistines bring the Ark back to the Israelites along with their apology gifts. When they return to the temple, who is there to accept the gift?

You got it: Samuel. The last of the Judges; first of the prophets.

At Peace Covenant, we share in the interpretation of the text. So at the end of this story, I asked: what do we learn about God from this story? And what do we learn about ourselves?

A friend on Facebook said that her interpretation of the story is that God does not need us to defend him – that he is totally capable of taking care of his own business (hemorrhoids, tumors, etc.).

One church member said “the main point is that messing with God is a pain in the butt.”

And several others said that this seemed to be a story about justice: that God does not care for lying, cheating, wicked scoundrels in charge of his people and that God will make things right in the end.

It is interesting that Eli’s sons – the ones who were inheriting the power and privilege of temple leadership – were killed, while the Philistines – outsiders who stole the precious center of worship – got what was coming to them in the form of a very uncomfortable bodily malady.

That makes it seem to me that God cares a lot more about the integrity of the leaders he calls to care for his people than she does about the integrity of some outside group that is clearly aiming at enemy status.

Which makes me wonder if we are spending too much of our discipleship energy worrying about the evil Philistines, and too little of it paying attention to who our own leaders are and whether or not they are acting with integrity.

But what do YOU think?

 

 

bad poetry

Yesterday, Parker Palmer shared a Mary Oliver poem on Facebook, which I read before the morning walk with the dog through the giant empty lot behind my building:

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And, wouldn’t you know, there were, in fact, some weeds growing in a vacant lot. And, because Mary Oliver and Parker Palmer seem to me to be pretty overwhelmingly decent teachers, I decided to patch a few words of thanks together, and I was surprised where that other voice took me.

 

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This defiant flower

commandeering this half-crack of concrete

declaring eminent domain

right of crumpled burger wrap

just left of wadded undershirt

growing in wisdom and in stature,

rooted in this rupture.

Like the dumpster

and the culvert

and the steep slope on the corner:

all of them cradling some artful being

startled to see me when I round the corner with my tiny, happy dog;

like the ICU block where I arrived to pray

with the family of a dying man

(a crass and ornery and dirty joking kind of man)

all of us folded into the unit

laughing at his old jokes as we waited

for him to commend his spirit and breathe his last.

Like the craggy mountain path I hiked,

(roots of pine clawing at the incline

treetops angled precariously but reaching up, anyway,

for sunlight and growing down, anyway,

for water)

when the family called

two days later

to say this old and dying man had pulled

another one over on them;

that he breathed breath after breath

refusing to commend anything to anyone,

electing instead to commandeer,

declaring even in that slim sliver of possibility

that we beings are inclined, it seems, to BE.